Alumna’s film captures the spirit of Zinn

Paul Karner

As college students in 2004, having learned about and studied the social revolutions and political upheavals that glorified the century before us, it often seems that our time to rise as a generation has yet to come. Maybe things have gotten better, and thus the days of mass protests and widespread social disobedience are outdated and simply echoes of an older, less refined America.Or perhaps our quietness as a generation stems from mere acquiescence, and our country and our world are in as great a need as ever. Deb Ellis’ documentary on Howard Zinn, “You Can’t be Neutral on a Moving Train,” was shown in the Wriston auditorium last Saturday, October 29. The film tells the story of a man unwilling to accept the way of the world around him.

Zinn lived an unbelievable life – from his humble beginnings working in a shipyard on the east coast, to being a bomber pilot in World War II, to playing a major role in some of the greatest social revolutions of the last century. After college Zinn took a job as one of the only white professors at Spelman College, an all-black college at the time, and was soon leading mass demonstrations, inspiring thousands to stand up for civil rights. Later, Zinn’s activism brought him to the forefront of the Vietnam peace movement, and he was eventually chosen as one of three representatives sent to retrieve hostages being held in North Korea.

Recently, Zinn has been known for his work as a historical writer, most notably his best-selling book, “The People’s History of The United States,” a startling critique of America’s history from 1942 to the present, credited for changing the way Americans view their own history. He was able to capture the dark side of the American experience that is often glossed over in historical writings, and what emerges is a picture of America that is complete and unabridged.

The film offers a moving depiction of a compassionate man with the capacity to fight for good in a world tainted by injustice. Deb Ellis, Lawrence class of ’79, was introduced to Zinn in a history class here and years later was so impressed with what she saw of his life that she joined a friend in creating a film that could inspire people to take a more idealistic view of our country’s future. Howard Zinn saw democracy functioning from the bottom up, and this is the perspective from which he wrote. He believed that “Democracy is not merely a collection of votes, but a collection of actions,” and action is essential to progress.

For more information on “Howard Zinn: You Can’t be Neutral on a Moving Train,” go to